India’s chequered history has lured many a writer from the east as well as the west. In his latest foray, Scottish historian William Dalrymple – author of The City of Djinns, The While Mughals, and The Last Mughal, among others –examines how a private trading corporation headquartered in London succeeded in pulverising the Mughal Empire, ending its rule lasting well over three centuries, over a hundred years of which had witnessed unprecedented progress, border security, and splendour.

Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, spanning the years 1599 to 1803, covers the transformation of the East India Company (EIC), which on 31 December 1599 received a royal charter granting its 214 members a monopoly over all trade with the East and permission to wage war if required. This company became England’s main trade and dominion vehicle in India, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In his introduction Dalrymple admits that the book “does not aim to provide the complete history of the EIC, still less of an economic analysis of its business transactions”. He has mainly focussed on the years 1756 to 1803, during which time the Company began flexing its muscles in Mughal dominions and committed unprecedented crimes in the process.

Dalrymple has relied heavily on the sources dealing with military tactics, the skills and discipline of Company armies that enabled the British to defeat the fractured Mughal Empire. There’s not much in his book on the way British envoys initially had to plead and reason with the Mughals for farmans that granted trade rights and permission to set up factories in India. Nor does Dalrymple present the picture of the ailing economy of Britain at the time.

Britain depended largely on its naval power for war and trade, relying greatly on privateering to generate revenues. The nation remained occupied with warfare during the last decade of the sixteenth century. Its long-running war against Spain resulted in huge losses, and many Englishmen had perished.

Thrice during the war years, in 1592, 1602 and 1603, the country had to encounter serious outbreak of plague in London and other prominent provincial towns. Also, owing to the war, many routes leading to some of the flourishing markets of the world were partially or completely closed to British ships.

The Company comes to India

Beginning with Babur in 1536, the Mughals had by this time ensconced themselves on the throne of Hindustan. In the last decade of Akbar’s reign, the Mughal Empire with its sprawling dominions was at its zenith. Its mighty army, boasting of 30,000 war elephants, was feared across all of Asia.

Trade and manufacturing flourished in the country during this time. Rich Indian textiles enjoyed enormous demand, cotton and silk in particular. India supplied cloth to almost half the world, besides consuming it in large quantities for its own needs. The adroitness of Indian artisans was unparalleled. The nation excelled at everything artistic, especially jewellery and handicrafts. Hindustan was aware of its high standing and soared above many other nations.

At the onset of the seventeenth century, the demand for Indian goods in foreign markets was so huge that Indian merchants spurned barter altogether and insisted on accepting nothing but gold and silver. Britain sent many missions from the EIC to the Mughal court throughout the first quarter of the century to get a slice of this trade. Some of the most notable of these were headed by Captain Thomas Best and William Hawkins. And the most famous one, by Sir Thomas Roe, who was also the ambassador of King James I.

Hawkins arrived in Surat on 16 April 1609. Despite his grasp over Turki and his personal charm, he managed nothing more than securing a promise of unlimited extension of British trade. Fiercely opposed in the Mughal court by nobles, he was not allowed to establish factories in India. After two and a half years, he returned to England after being expelled for arriving drunk at court. Best, however, managed to get a farmaan for an English factory to be established at Surat in 1613. More factories would follow in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta in the years to come.

“A state in the guise of a merchant”

A comprehensive analysis of history more often than not provokes a clash of perspectives. There is an old saying: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” This is not to say that Dalrymple is on the side of either the hunter or the lions, or that he has dealt ambidextrously with his subject. We must take this well-researched book as a remarkably even-handed portrait of the EIC, with the ailing Mughal Empire and a succession of one roi fainéant after another on the throne in Delhi. Dalrymple’s thought-provoking account of a once prosperous empire ravaged by its own quisling generals’ and governors’ selfishness, the treachery of its nobles, internal rivalries, and betrayals by key allies – all of this coinciding with the coming of a nefarious corporate pillager –is the most alluring element of the narrative.

The Persian invasion of the Mughal capital in 1739 had left huge and irreparable gaps in the formidable walls which had once protected the Mughal Empire and its sovereignty. Many stakeholders, including the Afghans, the Marathas, the Sikhs and others, saw this as their opportunity to capitalise on the Mughals’ weaknesses. One of them was the EIC, which had by now abandoned diplomacy and taken up arms to consolidate its trade and its hold over Indian territories.

The central figure of the book, however, can be none other than Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, who had seen as a boy of twelve how Persian king Nadir Shah had subjugated Delhi. He is a classic historical character straight out of a Greek tragedy – he evades multiple assassination attempts by the Mughal Wazir Imad-ul-Mulk, he is an undisputed king of Hindustan in exile, he garners the support of different factions, the majority of his countrymen recognises him as their emperor, he manages to survive four wars against Company armies far well-equipped than his own army.

Finally, after twelve long years, he returns to his capital. With the aid of the last great Mughal general Mirza Najaf Khan, Shah Alam almost achieves the impossible task of restoring the prestige of his ailing empire. At times, his awareness of the powerlessness of his feeble throne against the growing influence of the EIC over his kingdom evokes the reader’s sympathy. As does his unfruitful allegiance with the imposing foreigners.

Some of the factors that significantly helped the Company to keep its ship adrift in India were easy availability of domestic finance and Indian recruits in its army, without whom it could have never ventured beyond Calcutta. It is quite clear why many Indians chose to fight for the British – they were paid better and regularly.

This was a period when starving Mughal armies went without food for days. The major moneylenders of Hindustan, like the Jagat Seths, backed the EIC, not only because of the prevailing politics of the day but also for the steady business that it brought to the table. The fall of the Mughal Empire seemed inevitable by the time the Sultan of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, met his heroic end in his final battle to save the country from the EIC’s armies.

But it must be said that in ascribing sanctity to the popular notion that it was a private trading corporation that eventually ousted the Mughals, Dalrymple may be fuelling a myth of sorts. From his preface to his epilogue, he has allowed this idea to pass through the pages on numerous occasions.

Dalrymple states that “it was not the British government that seized India in the middle of the eighteenth century, but a private company”. The English philosopher Edmund Burke had described the EIC as “a state in the guise of a merchant.”. To say that the British Crown or the State had nothing to do with the EIC is surely overstating the case.

Eclipsing the Mughals

After being granted a diwani by Shah Alam – giving it the right to collect taxes in Bengal, Bihar and Orrisa – the EIC’s revenues from India had become the backbone for the British economy. These were some of the richest provinces in India. However, the EIC did not fulfil its obligation, it seems, for it stopped making the agreed annual payment of 26 lakh rupees to the Red Fort, which was the condition for this act of privatisation.

By this time, the deluded Shah Alam had no power to reverse his grievous mistake by force. Only its profits and serving its masters in London mattered to the EIC now. Shah Alam was given assurances by Warren Hastings, who had now succeeded in turning the Emperor into a puppet, much like the Nawab of Oudh. Dalrymple writes, “The EIC’s taxes contributed too much to the economy – customs duties alone generated £886,922 annually (over £93 million of today) – for it to be possible for any government to let the Company sink.” Every now and then members of Parliament in England pulled strings to subvert legislation in favour of the EIC, as it was now generating “nearly half of Britain’s trade”.

With these and other instances, The Anarchy actually makes it clear that the English government was closely tied to the presence of the EIC in India. Granted, it functioned primarily for the purpose of enriching its investors, but many of its shareholders were Members of Parliament who stuck their necks out to help it whenever required.

Lord North’s India Bill of June 1773 saved the EIC from bankruptcy. Dalrymple writes:

“The world’s first aggressive multinational corporation was saved by one of history’s first mega-bailouts, an early example of a nation state extracting, as its price for saving a failing corporation, the right to regulate and rein it in. But despite much parliamentary rhetoric, the EIC still remained a semi-autonomous imperial power in its own right, albeit one now partially incorporated within the Hanoverian state machinery.”

And eventually, the British State did take over the reins of India in 1858 – the nefarious EIC had lost the faith of Parliament completely, we are told. By then, the officious EIC had become “the ruler of a rich and expansive territorial empire extending across South Asia”. The land needed the British government to manage its affairs now.

The British Crown would understandably require an army of historians and chroniclers to demolish the obelisks of crimes the EIC had left behind in India. But presenting atrocities as the “civilising” effects of colonisation would prove to be a tough act. And yet, by framing the growth of the EIC into an imperial power – as well as murky dealings and grisly manoeuvres – as solely its own, the book also labels these exploits of the EIC as distinct from the British Crown.

A literary triumph

How far Dalrymple has succeeded in keeping imperfections of historical writing at bay in this fruit of six years’ labour is for accomplished historians to judge. It is an achievement in itself that he has adroitly dealt with a work of such proportions. Dalrymple writes with a mastery in which he has few equals among his contemporaries. He is known for narrating the most dreadful of all historical events with a certain grace unique to his writing.

Throughout his oeuvre, he has treated the Mughals with the deference they deserve for laying the groundwork for turning India into “a modern nation-state”. Of course, they clearly failed to take this process forward owing to a number of reasons. Dalrymple presents his arguments with ease and clarity, with a variety of rhythms and tones hard to find in historical works, which are mostly blandly written.

It must be said that the readers of The Anarchy will be enchanted. Some of the most moving passages are those where Dalrymple describes how the fortunes of figures like Shah Alam and Tipu Sultan changed, how the circumstances of Indian territories, especially Delhi and once-glittering Bengal, shifted during the years of anarchy. The heavily referenced passages of the book vindicate Dalrymple’s method of writing history.

He has plunged headlong into a vast ocean, touching upon almost everything but focussing mainly on the pivotal battles where the EIC emerged victorious against all odds, at times with the aid of intrigue and double-dealing. It is notable how superior war tactics, advanced artillery and organised assaults, sometimes even favourable weather conditions, enabled the EIC to defeat one independent Indian ruler after the other – all this while emptying the coffers of the vanquished and sending ships filled with loot back home, after its officers had taken their share.

The vivid description of these battles suggests Dalrymple’s authority over the subject. For the major part of the book he seems to be riding along EIC armies from one battle to the other, never abandoning his armour of reason, always connecting the dots to strength his narrative further. Still, there’s something dubious about certain passages and dialogues for which no references have been provided. On more than one occasion, the writer seems to have been led by his urge to either keep the machinery of storytelling in motion, or to protect his interpretation of history.

The account of the EIC’s all-important battle for Mughal Delhi is not as detailed as those of some of the other key battles. Only a brief passage from memoirs of an Englishman present at the battle, and another from a different source, are cited here to explain what took place before the EIC emerged victorious.

Dalrymple tells us that the “blind” Shah Alam watched the battle from the rooftop of the Red Fort with his family. The Marathas – the last threat to the dominance of the EIC in India – from whose clutches the British liberated Shah Alam had been defeated but not yet crushed.

Now “the deer lies with the leopard, the fish with the shark”. “For better or worse” the fate of the country lies in the hands of the British. The Indian Monarch is now under the protection of the British Crown, we are told. Fifty years of “the Golden calm” would follow after a century of “the Great Anarchy”.

Towards the end, we encounter the sightless, dejected and god-praising Shah Alam, who as a young man had made passionate efforts to restore the moribund empire of his ancestors to its former glory, accepting his fate with a certain dignity. But there is no catharsis in this tragedy.

Dalrymple is indeed an insightful observer of history. It would be an injustice to him if it is not mentioned as being among the few contemporary writers who can judiciously handle historical events and characters as complicated as those from Mughal India. There are many instances where he takes the side of humanity alone, with great understanding, and, wherever possible, with great precision.

In today’s new order of mendacious propaganda, at a time when prevailing Indian politics is once again relying heavily on the divide-and-dominate policy of the British conquerors, it is almost heartwrenching to learn from The Anarchy what Indians lost as a civilisation solely because they allowed themselves to be divided.

The Anarchy

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And The Pillage Of An Empire, William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury.